A Fifth Avenue Fantasy Comes to an End: Farewell, FAO Schwarz

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

The store opened in Manhattan in 1870 and moved to its current spot in 1986, two years before Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia played “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks” on its now-famous giant floor piano. If you’ve seen Mighty Aphrodite, Baby Boom, Big Business or even the latest Smurfs movie (which I thankfully haven’t), you’ve seen the store, and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit it, you know that the movies weren’t lying about its magnificence.

I’ve played on the floor piano. I’ve watched my baby brother take a running jump into a huge pile of stuffed animal puppies because he couldn’t resist, and saw his arms reach out in a giant puppy embrace. Every stuffed animal there always seemed softer than any we’d ever touched before, and cuter, too. Giant Lego displays, craft centers and the ability to customize dolls and Muppets added to the magic, along with a giant candy department.

I’m not the only one who’s already in mourning.

After I moved to New York, the flagship store was always a stop when friends came to visit, whether or not they had kids. It was good for celebrity-spotting, too, probably since they were among the few who could actually afford to buy something there. My brother and I saw Gwen Stefani there, right after No Doubt had their first hit. And I remember wandering around about 10 paces behind a celebrity I was sure I recognized, thinking, I know I recognize that guy, who is he? and then Oh wait, he looks like Al Franken would look if he dropped a lot of weight and grew up and had kids. Guess what? Since I’d last seen him on TV, Al Franken had dropped a lot of weight and grown up and had kids, and that’s the man who was eyeing me nervously as I stalked him through the store. (Once I figured out who he was, I stopped, curiosity satisfied, and let the man shop in peace.) Another memory to add to my list, and hopefully not one he remembers.

But you don’t go there for the celebrities. The FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue is the toy store you picture in your head when you let go for a moment and channel your inner 5-year-old. You instantly get why that scene in Big stuck in your head for all those years. Just like Tom Hanks, you become a little kid again, and it happens when you step through that door and leave your cynicism outside. Your jaw drops at the size of the stuffed giraffes, the flying toys zooming around the store, the unbelievable scope of it all. When you’re there, instead of thinking about shopping and rising costs and commercialism, you just play.

And that is what we’ll all miss the most.

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